Content warning: This article discusses the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine.
If you’ve ever wondered how the world stood by and watched historic apartheid, genocide, and injustice occur, look no further than U of T’s academic departments’ silence on Palestinian issues. This past week has shown us that their land acknowledgments and “anti-colonial,” “anti-oppression” buzzwords are smoke and mirrors. In this age of information, we are seeing a world-renowned research institution claim that the United Nations-recognized apartheid and war crimes committed by Israel are simply too complicated to discuss. The cowardice is deeply disturbing.
When I received an email from my graduate department forwarding the “Message to the Community on the War in the Middle East” from U of T’s Vice-President, International, I sat in shock and rising anger. Surely, a statement regarding 75 years of occupation since the Nakba in 1948, including ethnic cleansing and apartheid, did not centre the most recent retaliation against the oppressor in the first sentence. A coalition of U of T students, staff, faculty, and alumni who share this reaction have also been circulating a joint statement, expressing “shock and disappointment at the statement.”
As a Muslim, my faith teaches me to always assume the best of others, giving ample benefit of the doubt. So, upon reading the statement, I decided to email my department chairs to respectfully let them know that this does not represent the perspective of myself or my peers.
With 35 of my classmates as signatories, I presented the chairs with facts, such as how former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, and South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor have all labelled Israel’s occupation as apartheid, and the UN has declared the occupation unlawful, in breach of international law, in hundreds of resolutions.
I also noted how Amnesty International has determined through a comprehensive report that the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention unequivocally deem the seizure of land, thousands of deaths, forcible displacement, and denial of nationality as apartheid and a crime against humanity.
As a master’s student in the Department of Geography, this crisis is central to our practice. We constantly discuss anti-oppression, nationalism, institutionalized power, and study land acknowledgments, committing ourselves to understanding the role our field has had in historic and ongoing settler-colonialism. Alongside professors in every class, our department’s Equity and Diversity statement has rightfully discussed geographers’ responsibility to critically examine displacement and oppression and to advocate for peace and justice through our work.
Clearly, I was mistaken for thinking that meant anything. I honestly had some hope when communicating with the department, but the response fell flat. In an email to the department listserv, the Geography department’s chairs told us that they would only comment on actions taken by the department and exclusively refer to statements issued by U of T. What stands out as particularly concerning is the reason they cited:
“The extreme diversity within the calls made on us so far to comment in relation to the Israel-Hamas conflict have shown us the impossibility of equitably representing the whole of our community on this issue.”
What I’m hearing: a difficult conversation about the truth is not worth having. What role should U of T play in times of injustice? Should it be a platform that represents the truth and stands up against injustice, or should it pander to the myriad perspectives held by students? To me, our university masquerades as the former, and when things get real, it operates entirely as a performative shill. It succumbs to the pressure and hides from taking the victim’s side.
Why is this so problematic? Because context matters. We are seeing international propaganda spread disinformation, and the public is believing it without fact-checking.
Some of the most heinous claims against Palestinians populating headlines, news segments, and social media are wholly unsubstantiated. Notably, the US President retracted a statement claiming he saw images of Hamas beheading children, with a spokesperson admitting that the president had not seen said images. Celebrities are posting images of crying children and fallen buildings, captioning them with prayers for Israel, only to realize that they are images of Gaza.
It is this context that necessitates real advocacy, and for our leadership to put their buzzwords into practice.
Let’s be clear. The deaths of innocent civilians are horrific. We must unequivocally condemn discrimination and antisemitism at all costs, and this article in no way seeks to diminish the pain or mourning of the death of Israeli civilians. As critically-thinking academics, we need to recognize that condemning an apartheid state that is breaking international law to wipe out an indigenous population does not negate sympathizing with innocent deaths on both sides.
The silence from our leadership speaks volumes. What we are asking for is not complex. Critically examining the facts and standing for human rights should be inarguable. It’s crucial that our Department of Geography — and other departments — release statements condemning the apartheid that we are witnessing in Palestine.
A land acknowledgment does not rectify ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism. Decolonization requires action and an active commitment to do better. Now is the time to speak up — otherwise, this program and U of T as a whole are failing to produce leaders of change. Change begins here and now.
Fatima Zahra Mohammed is a second-year Master’s of Science student studying urban planning at the Department of Geography.
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